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Nov 8, 2021

'Dune' and Other Lessons From Surveying the Best Adapted Screenplays

Since its beginning, Hollywood has turned to stage plays and books for source material to turn into movies -- with mixed results. Our producer-at-large and film buff Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., has been surveying these adaptations decade by decade and blogging about the best he's found, especially those that earned Academy Award nominations.

Here, he answers some questions about what he's learned along the way:

The recent film adaptation Dune turned out impressive box office results and presumably high streaming numbers on HBO Max. What did director/co-writer Denis Villeneuve adapt well from the Frank Herbert novels?

Without a doubt, the film is visually striking and begs viewing on the big screen.

I might echo some chatter around the movie, that it essentially plays like a sci-fi retelling of Lawrence of Arabia. In that film, director David Lean chose wide panoramic shots to not only capture the vastness of the desert, but to also signify the monumental accomplishment of a British outsider unifying disparate Arab tribes against Turkish rule.

Dune director Denis Villeneuve made similar, appropriate shot choices in the telling the tale of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) eventually leading the rebellion of desert Fremen in ousting outside rulers.

Dune adapted only part of Herbert's story and was released before a sequel was confirmed, let alone shot. Is it a new trend, with filmmakers leaving a story incomplete, hoping to get the chance to finish it?

Could be. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sequels were not completed when each movie came out, but they were announced. But, it's been unheard of within my lifetime that you could cut a story midstream and tease the next movie that doesn’t exist, yet. Even the great Star Wars works as a complete, singular movie, even though the remainder of the trilogy likely existed only as notes in George Lucas’ imagination.

Dune comes out of the sci-fi genre. What other genres are often adaptations?

I would argue there are more mediums as source materials, generally speaking. That was the most rewarding part of this project, traveling through a creative discipline of Hollywood history and seeing more and more types of source materials added to the pot.

The 1920s and 1930s relied heavily on plays, novels and stories; the last one separated out into its own category of Best Original Story (then Screenplay) by the 1940s.

Plays and novels really were the go-to source materials up until the 1970s. They fit with dialogue heavy films of the time and with a studio standard of shot coverage and editing techniques. While still primarily adapting plays and novels, the 1960s began experimenting with the technical disciplines and new visual looks emerged, with films like The Graduate; Goodbye, Columbus; etc.

“Based on a true story” is a more recent trend. True-crime stories replaced film noir. Why make up a crime story when it might already exist? The 1970s saw The French Connection; Serpico; All the President’s Men and Midnight Express.

The 1980s added to the nonfiction format with a good number of memoirs. Country singer Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter got made as did Karen Blixen’s story in Out of Africa. They were two of eight true life stories from the decade.

With the very occasional teleplay, these four mediums remained in play until the 2000s. Then, graphic novels, self-contained illustrated stories, were nominated: Ghost World and A History of Violence ,and a “serious” comic book called American Splendor.

In the last decade, superhero comics, once the exclusive domain of many a kid’s 1980s nerdom (including mine), went mainstream with Marvel’s Wolverine (Logan) and DC’s Joker earning nominations.

The next Oscar ceremony is delayed until March 27, 2022, so eligible films must have been released between March and December, 2021. What will this shorter, 10-month eligibility window portend for the Best Adapted Screenplay award?

The visual medium of film embracing the visual literary form of comics really got us to where we are today: a myriad of genres and mediums in what should be a strong year for the category.

There’s something for everyone: foreign novella (Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter), Shakespeare’s Macbeth, more comics (The Eternals), coming-of-age memoir (The Tender Bar) and remakes of previous films; both foreign (CODA) and domestic (West Side Story).

Heck, even a twitter thread got made into a crime caper (content warning) in Lola. It leads me to ask whether TikTok will birth the next great musical.

Any other final insights?

The pandemic lockdowns and restrictions slowed the entire world down. I hope people learned to spend leisure time intentionally. They say reading is the free time activity that most approximates prayer.

Visiting a bookstore before a flight back to LA recently, I found the store absolutely packed, something I thought I would never see again. I pray that happens too with churches.

This is the final blog in the series, so Father Vince also chose the best single adaptation of each decade, including the GOAT (Greatest of All Time).

  • 1920s: 7th Heaven, directed by Frank Borzage, based on the play by Austin Strong
  • 1930s: Stage Door, directed by Gregory La Cava, based on the play by Edna Ferber
  • 1940s: Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, based on the unproduced play Everybody Comes  to Rick’s by Joan Alison and Murrey Burnett
  • 1950s: Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the story It Had to be Murder by Cornell Woolrich
  • 1960s: A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinnemann, based on the play by Robert Bolt -- also the GOAT
  • 1970s: The Exorcist, directed by William Friedkin, based on the book by William Peter Blatty
  • 1980s: The Dead, directed by John Huston, based on the short story by James Joyce
  • 1990s: The Thin Red Line, directed by Terrence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones
  • 2000s: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring directed by Peter Jackson, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • 2010s: Arrival, directed by Denis Villeneuve, based on the short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  • 2020s (so far): The Father, directed by Florian Zeller, based on his play

Image: Courtesy Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C.

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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